When Jonathan Coulton first began writing his weekly songs, he carefully tracked how many people listened to each one on his Web site. His listenership rose steadily, from around 1,000 a week at first to 50,000 by the end of his yearlong song-a-week experiment. But there were exceptions to this gradual rise: five songs that became breakout “hits,” receiving almost 10 times as many listeners as the songs that preceded and followed them. The first hit was an improbable cover song: Coulton’s deadpan version of the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot rap song “Baby Got Back,” performed like a hippie folk ballad. Another was “Code Monkey,” his pop song about a disaffected cubicle worker.
Obviously, Coulton was thrilled when his numbers popped, not least because the surge of traffic produced thousands more dollars in sales. But the successes also tortured him: he would rack his brains trying to figure out why people loved those particular songs so much. What had he done right? Could he repeat the same trick?
“Every time I had a hit, it would sort of ruin me for a few weeks,” he told me. “I would feel myself being a little bit repressed in my creativity, and ideas would not come to me as easily. Or else I would censor myself a little bit more.” His fans, he realized, were most smitten by his geekier songs, the ones that referenced science fiction, mathematics or video games. Whenever he branches out and records more traditional pop fare, he worries it will alienate his audience.
For many of these ultraconnected artists, it seems the nature of creativity itself is changing. It is no longer a solitary act: their audiences are peering over their shoulders as they work, offering pointed comments and suggestions.